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The Digitization of History

Minutes from Meeting 27 February 2009

Saltmarsh Room, King’s College, Cambridge

D’Maris Coffman, Research Fellow, Newnham College (ddc22)

Leigh Denault, PhD student, History (ltd22)

Rachel Hoffman, PhD student, History (rh393)

Andrew Jarvis, PhD Student, History (adj28)

David Motadel, PhD student, History (dm408)

Eleanor Newbigin, Research Fellow, Trinity College (ern20)

David Palfrey, Lecturer, History, Birkbeck College (dsp13)

Anne-Isabelle Richard, PhD student, History (aigcfr2)

Michael Roe, Microsoft Research (mroe@microsoft.com)

Emma Rothschild, Professor of History, Harvard; Director,

Joint Centre for History and Economics (er10005)

Pernille Røge, PhD student, History (pr279)

David Todd, Research Fellow, Trinity Hall (fdt20)

Robert Watson, PhD student, Computer Laboratory (rnw24)

Tara Jane Westover, MPhil student, History (tw324)

We were delighted to welcome old and new participants to a discussion about future directions for the Digitization project. ER spoke briefly on the history of the project and its major goals, and then LD gave a short introduction to the project thus far, summarising some of the major points made by past speakers at project meetings and our ideas for continuing research. ER noted that we have a particular interest in questions of access outside the Anglophone world, and in substantive interdisciplinary discussion. The Centre’s double base, at Harvard and at Cambridge, also provides us with the opportunity to see the differences between historians’ digital encounters in the US and UK – and to observe that while Harvard has a much larger programme of talks and research groups dedicated to the topic, Harvard historians have with some notable exceptions also been reluctant to join in the debate about new technologies and methodologies.
LD introduced the three major goals of the project: original research, education, and interdisciplinary exchange. Ideas for continuing research include a survey of history students at Cambridge to assess uptake of digital resources and engagement with new methodologies; analysis of Google Book Search from a joint computer science/history perspective; publication of our paper on ‘Historical Archives in the Digital Age’, and new projects to digitize archival handlists and materials for the DH website. The DH group plans to continue to be involved in graduate research training and in the CRASSH eHumanities group, as well as expanding our existing tutorials on the website. Finally, LD introduced current ideas for a workshop on copyright history and the impact of contemporary intellectual property regimes, for a blog on the DH website and for a continuing series of talks.
Participants then introduced themselves and their research backgrounds; a shared trend within the diverse interests of the groups was an engagement with archives outside of Britain, use of colonial and postcolonial archives, and transnational topics. While the discussion ranged widely over a variety of key issues, we have highlighted a few major themes below. Suggestions from participants included the creation of more materials on the website to summarise complex issues such as copyright, the nature of online searching, and ‘digital archive stories’ from early-career academics and graduates to record changing research experiences and relationships to sources as material becomes less tactile and more abundant. The group also agreed that workshops exploring the history and practice of intellectual property regimes and corporate record-keeping in the digital age would be extremely useful, as would continuing old and forging new collaborations with other groups working on similar issues.
ER suggested that one priority is to contribute to a ‘guide to web searches in the digital age’, to explain PageRank algorithms and ‘deep’ searching to historians. MR also seconded the need for a guide to variations in copyright regimes, in particular the great difference between US and UK copyright policy. PR and AR both suggested that the DH blog should be used to share digital ‘archive stories’ along the pattern set out by Antoinette Burton in her edited volume, and agreed with LD that a series of workshops featuring brief presentations on changing archival practice and experience by graduates and early-career academics would provide a useful addition to current graduate training courses. RW noted that a dialogue about how experiences have changed will be enormously useful to historians of the future, as well as providing context for current debates. A-IR and PR also felt that we could use the blog to highlight changing experiences in international archives, expanding the project’s transnational focus and helping early-career scholars and students to understand the impact of changing archival practice and technology on their research.
Another theme centred on how we might evaluate our changing relationship to the sources for historical research. Many discussants suggested that we should think more about the way that our relationship to sources change with the shift from tactile to visual. PR recalled her experience with the digital archive in France, where archives were unwilling to break up records series by allowing the publication of partial digital records, as The National Archives in the UK have done. DC also thought that we need to think about ways to build trust in digital resources, and the problems presented by a lack of cohesion to collections now online. She thought that more attention could be paid to quality checks, and MR wondered whether a ‘wiki’ model, in which document collections remain static but indexes are constantly evolving, might be one solution. Yet, LD and RW noted, TNA has attempted to implement such a model and while it has expanded the reach of the catalogue, DP said that it has been very slow to catch on. LD added that preserving the ‘context’ and provenance of collections, as well as the handlists and catalogues which have mediated access to them, is critical in attempting to preserve the rich world of the physical archive into the digital realm. RW suggested that we might usefully engage with Human Computer Interaction (HCI) researchers who perform qualitative studies of changing research practices. DT also thought that we should engage more UL librarians in such conversations, as funding models for projects of interest to historians increasingly assume a level of interaction which is not currently present. DC, MT, and A-IR all thought that we could further develop the idea of a ‘catalogue of catalogues’ or ‘archive of archives’, possibly through an interactive but moderated system, to allow historians to follow current developments in the field. There is however an intrinsic danger in relying too heavily on integrated online catalogues, many of which suffer from poor fidelity to the originals or are simply incomplete. We might also, RW thought, analyse systemic errors in OCR and problems with digital catalogues to quantitatively define the benefits and trade-offs of research in this new environment.
EN opened discussion about how the politics of access and digitization might hamper progress toward ‘universal’ or improved access, although ER noted that many governments worldwide have now committed to archival projects linking preservation and digitization. DT suggested that there are serious issues with the financing of such projects, and that a recent French summit had concluded that ‘free’ access to such resources would not make economic sense. ER and LD spoke about the importance of developing a self-sustaining model for gradual digitization and democratization of access, and ER reinforced the DH project’s commitment to enlarging free access to source materials. RW noted that we might think about whether more historians could usefully add their experience to legal reform movements to expand or introduce ‘fair use’ for scholarship and preservation.
Another theme concerned the history of archival practice, both within academic institutions and private corporations. The group concluded that a workshop specifically on corporate and private archives would be useful to continue the discussion. DC spoke of the necessity of remembering the 20th century history of library experience and the continued relevance of debates about preservation in the age of microfilm/fiche, a point seconded by ER, who noted that debates from the 1940s and 50s at UNESCO about microfilming would provide context for current discussions about digitization. DM highlighted the existence of ‘offline’ as well as ‘online’ currents in digitization, and recounted uncovering a pattern of ‘trading’ CD-ROMs between Federal Broadcast archives at the NARA in the US and the archives in Frankfurt. ER began a discussion about the importance of thinking about archival practice in the context of corporate histories, wondering whether the important economic and political histories that have used banking and other private records as sources would be possible in the future. ER noted that banks sometimes preserved their histories as a valuable trading asset or prestige project. MR and RW shared their knowledge of corporate record-keeping within the software and technology sector, both suggesting that while some aspects, such as records covered by legal injunction, software development, or in-house technical reports were saved, many other kinds of records were being systematically destroyed. RW noted that the only two ‘computing history’ museums in the US were dogged by chronic funding problems, even during the economic boom period. LD also added that the ‘face-to-face’ experience of archives needed to be preserved, and the patterns of physical archival communities and expertise and how they contextualise and enrich our research experience better understood. As TJW noted, while digital use can supplement historical research and ameliorate some problems of overuse, they will probably not totally replace the need to handle originals. PR and LD spoke of the problems of digitizing certain kinds of archival materials, such as scrolled documents, medieval commonplace books containing mirror-writing or code (drawing on Raphael Lynne’s example) and books written in multiple languages which ‘meet in the middle, as do some Hindi-Urdu tracts from the 19th century.
Government archives, ER added, have been driven by the goals (if not always the realization) of transparency and administrative efficiency, factors that have perhaps carried more weight in the public sector. She also recalled the remarks of a Prussian archivist on ‘the dignity of the source materials of history’ being constantly attributed to an ever wider set of documents. With a continually changing understanding of what constitutes material of historical interest, and, as MR suggested, the predicament of current ‘born digital’ works regarding censorship, ease of destruction and changing practices, we need to focus on the creation of various types of bias within the digital archive. RW reinforced the point about bias, noting that ‘born digital’ records accumulate more quickly, and are more difficult and costly to preserve. Therefore, ER concluded, it is extremely useful to document the rationale behind decisions to ‘weed’ or preserve records, now more than ever, as half-finished and marooned ‘pebbles’ (from the Japanese term ishikoro referring to a neglected blog) abound. RW added that lack of funding in the current economic climate might lead to more such projects being neglected, calling into question the universalist aspirations of many digitization projects.

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